Released cabinet papers confirm what we always knew - that Thatcher lied about almost every aspect of the Great Miners Strike of 1984-85. Former striking miner Joe Henry looks back in anger
Reading Paul Mason’s website about the recently released cabinet papers relating to the 1984 miners’ strike reminded me of the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbell’s, infamous comment: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Thatcher must have had this in mind when she claimed that a hit list of seventy pits was a figment of Arthur Scargill’s imagination. Of course, the papers have now revealed that it was Thatcher who lied and had indeed approved Ian MacGregor’s pit closure programme of seventy-five pits. The lie was certainly ‘big’ and formed part of a carefully constructed narrative to discredit our leader and isolate the NUM from the wider labour and trade union movement.
The Tories’ hit list also nails the lie that Scargill initiated the strike for political ends. Clearly, it was the government who engineered the timing of the dispute and provoked the conflict which left us no alternative to but strike in defence of our jobs and communities. That we were right to do so is supported by the released papers and was also confirmed by the butchering of our industry in the following decade which, incidentally, went well beyond the closure of seventy pits.
Fraud and force
Back in 84, as a callow young miner, I remember attending a meeting in which an old, sagacious comrade explained that political elites rule by consent and coercion or as he engagingly put it: through fraud and force. Every day of the strike seemed to confirm his analysis that the state was not neutral – the courts, civil service and other arms of the state act in the interests of the ruling class. Now, with the release of the cabinet papers, it is possible to see the Tories resorting to force to buttress their lies. In sinister, bureaucratic language, the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, was urged by ministers to encourage chief constables to implement “a more rigorous interpretation of their duties.” As a result, our freedom to travel was illegally restricted in an attempt to stop picketing; thousands of us were criminalised on trumped-up charges and brutalised in paramilitary operations like Orgreave. And, in order to break our resolve, our communities came under siege. The documents confirm: the police were not independent and formed the coercive arm of the state, operating in the service of the ruling class. That Labour leaders of the time encouraged the view that the police were unfortunate victims caught in the middle of a trade dispute rather than willing accomplices was disgraceful and an insult to ordinary Labour Party members who campaigned tirelessly on our behalf. Quite simply, we knew the police by what they were: ‘Thatcher’s boot boys’ and now we have the cabinet papers to prove it.
The cabinet papers – useful as they are in showing the Tories to be inveterate liars - are also valuable in dispelling some of the myths that proliferated after out defeat. The biggest myth, of course, was that we could never have beaten such a formidable opponent as Thatcher. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Along with Thatcher and Macgregor’s memoirs, the cabinet papers support the view that we came agonisingly close to victory.
Both the dockers’ strike and the deputies’ dispute were wasted opportunities. Rather than throwing in their lot with us to protect jobs and communities the leaders of these unions struck separate agreements that won temporary concessions but left us isolated. This fruits of this shortsighted strategy backfired when the Tories ended the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1989 and the deputies lost their jobs in the pit closure programme after the conclusion of the strike.
Interestingly, Paul Mason notes that on cabinet papers relating to the dock strike, “Thatcher had scribbled down the names of moderates in the Transport union.” No doubt Thatcher influenced these leaders to end the dispute. Yet, ultimately, treading a less militant path proved counterproductive. Moderation was not the solution – it was the problem. This can be seen in a fascinating must- read post at the end of Mason’s piece where an ex-commercial manager of Shell in Scotland reveals how, with the help of a high-ranking T&G official, they maintained the supply of fuel to a scab transport firm which supplied coke to Ravenscraig, a steel producing plant which employed thousands of workers. Unfortunately, the ex-commercial manager omitted to say that the Tories closed Ravenscraig seven years later. What is more, it was not just moderate union leaders that let us down but also the left union bureaucracy who failed to deliver the solidarity that was needed to win.
The leaders of our class – both right and left-wing union leaders and the Labour leadership were all culpable - but it is we who are paying the price of defeat.
In contrast to this timidity, Paul Mason comments, Thatcher was “engaged in battle micro –management worthy of Monty or Wellington.” Clearly, the annotations that Thatcher penned show her as a class-warrior leaving nothing to chance, planning for every contingency, prepared to understand the minute detail to gain an advantage. She understood just how important the stakes were in Britain’s bitterest class struggle of the twentieth-century. Compare this to our leaders, Norman Willis and Neil Kinnock… no don’t bother.
So what lessons can we draw from these revelations? One: never trust what the Tories say or for that matter any government – let’s not forget Blair’s lies about weapons of mass destruction. We should proceed on the basis that lying is what governments do. Deception is in their DNA. How else can the representative of a tiny, super-rich minority screw over the vast majority? We should ‘smell a rat’ when, for example, they target benefit recipients or immigrants. We should suspect they are protecting greedy bankers or covering for tax evaders.
Lesson two: as trade unionists we have to build a grass roots movement that can act independently of union leaders when they impede the fight back against austerity. To paraphrase ‘we must work with and against the trade union leaders’. This does not mean we are uncritical of union leaders one week and screaming ‘sell out’ the next week. Our approach should be dialectical: we are both supportive and critical when necessary.
However, in today’s political climate, when we talk about building a rank and file that can overcome the inertia of the bureaucracy we must recognise just how difficult this is to achieve. This is graphically illustrated by the debacle at Grangemouth and the lame response of the NUT leadership to attacks on pay and conditions. Unfortunately, we are where we are. Yes, there is anger, but not the confidence to force union leaders to change tack. And, in the run up to the general election, trade union leaders will be even more reluctant to sanction action that can fight austerity.
In the absence of industrial struggle, building a broad alliance against austerity is crucial. We must build demonstrations, protests and, where necessary, be involved in initiatives like food banks. This is not to abandon the idea that power lies at the point of production or to substitute one form of struggle for another but to recognise we need to build the opposition in whatever way is possible. Hopefully, the People’s Assembly fits the bill.
Walking down memory lane again, I recall addressing students at York University saying that the miners’ fight was everyone’s fight and its outcome would define how we were to be governed for a generation. Wherever, I spoke I said the same thing. It became a cliché. After the defeat and, in the fullness of time, only now do I understand what the defeat of the strike really means. At work, we are subject to huge increases in workload, management bullying and crushing levels of accountability. We see the piece-meal dismantling of the welfare state and live in an era of wars and austerity. And things can get worse and will unless we resist.
The cabinet papers are timely because they afford us the opportunity to revisit the strike and understand the lengths the state will go to impose their authority. We need to learn the lessons, the stakes are too high not to. Thirty years of hurt is too long, it’s about time we started inflicting our pain.
Joe Henry is an Ex-miner, South Kirkby Colliery
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